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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK


Europe's GM battles

This rabbit could lead to a cure for Pompe's disease

By BBC correspondent Shirin Wheeler in Brussels

In a small laboratory in the Belgian town of Geel, a rabbit is strapped into a canvas sling. The research assistant attaches rubber teats to the animal and switches on the milking machine.

Shirin Wheeler: Europe has become obsessed with genetic modification
This rabbit has been genetically engineered to produce a special human enzyme in its milk. Initial trial results to be announced in the autumn by the Dutch company Pharming suggest this protein could provide the cure for sufferers of the rare muscle-wasting disease called Pompe's.

Maryse Schoneveld van der Linde is desperate for a breakthrough. A therapist visits once a week to ease her aching muscles. She needs a wheelchair and a ventilator to help her breathe at night.

[ image: Maryse is hopeful scientists will find an effective treatment]
Maryse is hopeful scientists will find an effective treatment
Maryse worries that soon the furthest she'll be able to travel is to the garden of the family's house in the Dutch village of Vaarseveld.

"Instead of making my life bigger, my world is closing down until it gets to the point that I'll just have to lie down," she says. "Now, I have hope - that I can live my life like others and realise my dreams and do what I want to do."

At Pharming's research centre in Belgium, they are looking at how engineered genes could help treat dozens of inherited diseases. Like companies using biotechnology in food and agriculture, this Dutch company has had to confront deep public mistrust.

Admitting to the risks

Pharming's Rein Strijker, in charge of the development of treatments for sufferers of rare diseases, says the industry must avoid preaching.

Shirin Wheeler: Anti GM feeling is not confined solely to the UK
"Another of the things you could do wrong is to try to convince people with strong emotions of the scientific arguments in favour of GM," he says. "It's a waste of time. There are also many things you could do right: Make it clear what the benefits of your technology are and make it clear what the risks are. There's nothing without risk and the worst thing you can do is not be open about that."

But as far as biotechnology in food is concerned, it is the perceived risks that have dominated the headlines in Europe. So far, the industry has failed spectacularly to communicate the benefits of GM products to Europe's consumers. In the UK, the newspapers refer to Frankenstein foods, and supermarket chains have been racing to take them off their shelves.

But this is not solely a British phobia. In Sweden, the farmers union will not even feed animals GM food. Rolf Erikson from the Union's Brussels office says they have little choice.

Food under the microscope
"We as producers understand how important this is for the consumer and we are interested in keeping the confidence of the Swedish consumer, and their desire for an acceptable means of production. That's why we have taken this action."

Resistance of consumers

In hindsight, Paul Muys of the European Association for Bioindustries says the sector underestimated the resistance of consumers already jaded by recent food scares like the "mad cow" crisis.

"Things were further complicated by the tragedies - let's call them tragedies - of the BSE crisis and the dioxin contamination scare in Belgium. Food crisis after food crisis which had nothing to do with biotechnology but which made people very suspicious of any development that affected their food.

[ image: Biotechnologists have to deal with public mistrust]
Biotechnologists have to deal with public mistrust
Belgian consumer association Test Achats believes eating GM foods is probably safe. But Wim Debeukelaere, a biologist by training who is in charge of food policy, thinks the European consumer has been deliberately starved of information.

"I have the idea that [biotechnologists] were trying to hide it - trying to put their products in the European market so that it would be too late to do anything about it," he says. "There has never been any discussion."

Consumers are making their anxieties known. A recent referendum in Austria showed a quarter of voters mistrusted biotechnology - Austria, France, Spain and Luxembourg have all imposed bans on certain GM crops.

And torn between the need to win public approval and defend new technologies, Europe's governments are not giving a clear lead either. Until they do, few people will openly embrace the new science.

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